Celtic grabbed a draw from the jaws of victory against Udinese in the Europa League last night, after leading the game for all of 80+ minutes. Gary Hooper’s clumsy chest-barge was enough to topple Neuton in the box, and Almen Abdi converted the penalty. It was a cruel end to a promising display, yet in truth the scoreline was a fair reflection of the performance of both sides.
Neil Lennon continued the European tactical experimentation by shaping up in an intriguing 4-1-2-1-2 formation – otherwise known as a 4-4-2 Diamond. It’s only a subtle shuffling of the normal lop-sided 4-4-2, but the tactical effect was significant.
Instead of a fairly vague central three, with one of which midfielder tucked in from the flank, the roles were clearly defined – Victor Wanyama the destroyer shielding the back four (in the first move to protect the centre-backs), and Ki Sung-Yeung and Beram Kayal taking equal responsibility to combine a fairly rugged, battling element with creative duties. It was a shock to the system for the latter pair, who had to shuttle out wide to close down the opposition wing-backs far more than they’re used to.
With the band of three morphing slightly into a ‘1-2’ , then the ‘Kris Commons’ element of the formation – last night played by James Forrest was also re-jigged. The Commons role sees the player cutting in from a starting wide position, but instead Forrest’s starting position was the peak of the diamond – the number 10. His natural instinct however took him out wide-right in possession, so it’s a reversal of the usual role – starting central and moving out wide.
The second tactical switch to protect the centre-backs was a personnel decision – Frazer Forster (cited in a previous tictactic article as being an equally culpable party in the recent poor defencive showings) was dropped in favour of Lukasz Zaluska. Forster’s two main faults; that he doesn’t have real command of the penalty box and that he hates to come off his line, does nothing to help the under-fire defence. The choice of Zaluska was a move to regain communication and trust between the ‘back 3’, although it was later pointed out by Johan Mjallby that the switch is likely to be less than permanent.
The final attempt to solidify the defence, was the popular decision to bring Charlie Mulgrew back into the centre. Incidentally he replaced Glenn Loovens – arguably the least culpable of the disappointing ‘back 3’ of recent matches, yet it’s a sorry state of affairs when a quality central midfielder like Joe Ledley has to cover left-back while a genuine defender sits on the bench, even if that defender is Loovens.
The other surprise was Mohamed Bangura being selected ahead of Georgios Samaras. While some would argue it’s even more surprising that either would get the nod ahead of Anthony Stokes, it’s by now clear that Lennon rarely trusts Stokes in a situation that requires graft and selflessness.
As analysed in the Udinese Scouting Report, the Italians did line up in a 3-5-1-1 formation. With talismanic Antonion Di Natale rested and Gabriel Torje ineligible, Diego Fabbrini led the line supported by Almen Abdi.
Francesco Guidolin rotated heavily with a demanding schedule in mind, yet still retained a small core of experienced, “first choice” players including goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, defender Danilo and midfield enforcer Badu. These were the only three retained from the 0-0 draw with Cagliari, and coupled with a ramshackle strike-force, it’s surely classed as a significantly weakened side.
Most worryingly for Udinese was probably the nature of two of the three centre-backs. Dusan Basta is probably considered a right-wing back (and not even that great defensively) while Joel Ekstrand played on the left-handside, is most known for playing at right-back.
Italian sides generally speaking don’t regard the Europa League that highly (although that may change), but still the players selected on the night were given a massive opportunity to grab Guidolin’s attention.
Celtic bucked the unwanted trend of starting poorly by attacking from the off, and within minutes Hooper won a crucial penalty – not only in respect to the scoreline but to settle the nerves of a team under pressure. Considering Celtic’s similarly unwanted history of squandering penalties, it was satisfying to see Ki blast the ball into the top corner from the spot.
Udinese’s unfamiliar lineup were struggling to find their footing in the game, and the pace of Celtic’s front pairing was causing particular discomfort, albeit the somewhat panicky Bangura was unable to make better use of the ball in promising positions. It was the kind of role that 2008-09 Samaras might be thriving in.
The general flow of the game in fact for the first hour or so, was very even with both teams taking a share of possession without really penetrating.
The feedback from most Celtic supporters has been very positive for this latest attempt at a tactical ‘Plan B’. And you can almost see the logic development that has seen Lennon arrive at the 4-1-2-1-2.
The anchorman – Wanyama has been a much needed buffer for the depressed centre-backs. He also proved to be a very useful (if limited in an attacking sense) player. He showed great positioning, discipline (unlike Kayal who was wound up enough to retaliate with two dreadful sliding tackles) and his tackling was well-timed, strong and aggressive.
While Ki and Kayal don’t particularly enjoy shuttling out wide; it worked, simply because Udinese’s system only used 1 on each flank, each who mostly spent their time in a stale-mate, duelling with Celtic’s respective full-backs. The very narrow four in the middle therefore outnumbered Udinese’s three – but while the formation was working, perhaps the player at the peak of the diamond could’ve been more effective.
Forrest is by no means a number 10, and in fact Scotland as a nation do not produce enough (any?) quality number 10s., so he just wasn’t able to operate as the clinical, clever, penetrating force linking midfield and attack. He doesn’t like playing with his back to goal, preferring to run on to passes, so didn’t perform well as an attacking focal point.
Where he did do well, and part explaining why arguably a more suitable player like Anthony Stokes could’ve been preferred, is that his tireless running and heckling was a worthy addition to the defensive unit.
Lack of cutting edge sees changes
A combination of Udinese’s lack of familiarity (or lack of bona fide striker), Celtic’s decent defensive showing and lack of cutting edge up front suggested no more goals were to come, but after half-time Guidolin introduced some more experienced players to add some attacking impetus. The consistently impressive Isla came on at right wing-back while Benatia replaced the disappointing Basta.
This turned the tide somewhat, and with Celtic perhaps resting on their lead (and not really able to hold possession like, say, an Italian team can) Udinese started to boss matters.
James Forrest was reported to have been vomiting during the first-half, and while Celtic’s formation was doing a reasonable containing job, the peak of the diamond had to be removed – but the options on the bench were limited. It was a case of choosing the most defensively handy person from the list of substitutes, and that turned out to be Samaras.
Many saw it as a terrible decision – trying to hold on to a slim advantage only to remove an (attacking) midfielder for a striker? But Samaras was the only real option – neither Stokes or Paddy McCourt are of much use defensively.
This also changed the system to more of a 4-3-3, with Bangura high and wide-left and Samaras wide-right. The Greek was either nervous, rusty or simply poor and his most telling contributions was conceding a poor free-kick in a dangerous area and failing to send Bangura through on goal when the opportunity was simple. Yet he shouldn’t shoulder the blame for the result.
Hooper’s decision in the dying minutes to step into Benatia in the box was a very bad one – Ki was waiting to clear-up and Hooper forced the referee into making a pressure call. Perhaps atoning for an earlier incident where Majstorovic could’ve been penalised, the ref pointed to the spot – in perhaps the only recorded case where a defending players fouls an attacker using only his nipples.
In an attacking sense, the 4-1-2-1-2 system proved to be a genuine contender to be the ‘Plan B’ of choice, though arguably Udinese’s 3-5-1-1 system was the allowing factor. But like the (other alternative) 4-2-3-1, it’s the number 10 that’s proving to be the potential downfall. Ki couldn’t fulfil that role before, and Forrest won’t be able to either.
Scott Brown once looked like that kind of player, particularly for Hibernian, but not anymore. And the slowly fading memory of a top-class Kris Commons, could also suit. Paddy McCourt is a contender and even Anthony Stokes – but the role ultimately doesn’t really suit anyone in the team. The last, most important piece in the puzzle is missing.
While it was a success last night, it’s unlikely Lennon will return to this formation, at least for the encounter with Hearts at Tynecastle on Sunday. But as admirable a result this was, the questions that have been troubling the early season remain unanswered.